No One Is Illegal

By Mac Scott and Sima Zerehi

Hassan Almeiri’s wife and children, surrounded by over 150 activists and a flurry of media stood outside the West Toronto detention centre. Hassan’s wife held an enlarged copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and his young daughter held on to a bag of chocolates she’s selling in order to raise funds for her father’s expensive legal costs.

Meanwhile, as his family and supporters rallied outside of the correctional facility, and Almeiri continued the 21st day of a hunger strike in protest of intolerable conditions such as a lack of heat, shoes and warm clothes and his continued detention in solitary confinement. Almeiri has been held without charge in solitary confinement since October 19, 2001.

Almeiri is one of five Muslim men who have been held in Canadian prisons, often in solitary confinement, without charge or bail, for months and sometimes years. The other four men are Mohammad Mahjoub, Mahmoud Jaballah, Mohamed Harkat, and Adil Charkaoui. Held under CSIS “security certificates”, none of these men, nor their lawyers, are allowed to see the case against them. All five men are facing deportation with the risk of imprisonment, torture or execution in their home countries. They may never know why.

Ahmed, a young Nigerian man was on his knees clinging to my legs as the guards from the Celebrity Inn detention centre came to inform him that he had to leave for the airport to be deported. He looked up at me with his desperate, pleading eyes and in broken English said, “don’t let them take me, they kill me, I can’t go back.” Ahmed, like many other detainees, had been bullied into signing a voluntary removal order. Too frightened to refuse, he had signed an order that was never fully explained or translated to him. Five minutes later, shackled in chains, Ahmed was carried away to the airport.

The Celebrity Inn detention facility, which occupies part of the converted Celebrity Inn Hotel, is currently the only detention centre in Toronto designed for refugees, and holds an average of 100 detainees at any given time. Four detainees share a cell the size of a single hotel room. Detainees spend anywhere from one day to months in the centre, as they wait for their identity to be verified, their bond to be posted, or their deportation to be arranged. Many speak very little English and have no friends or family in Canada to assist them by posting a bond, obtaining a lawyer, or helping them with their refugee claims.

These are but a few examples that illustrate the increasingly repressive nature of Canada’s immigration system. Since September 11, 2001, the immigration system has been given a free hand to take whatever measures are deemed necessary to protect “national security”.

Project Thread

Using “national security” concerns as an excuse, a joint task force of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), arrested 19 Pakistani men living in the Toronto area in a series of pre-dawn raids on August 14, 2003. In the weeks that followed, two additional men were arrested, bringing the total to 21. The joint RCMP/CIC operation was called “Project Thread”, although neither the RCMP nor CIC seems able to find a thread of evidence to justify the arrests and continued detention of these men.

The “evidence” produced by the task force includes the fact that the men lived in “clusters of four or five” and kept a “minimum standard of living” – conditions that are hardly unique for students or immigrants who are forced to live on very fixed incomes. In addition, the task force focused on the fact that one of the men is enrolled in a flight school and is studying to become a commercial pilot. Perhaps the most ludicrous factor used as evidence that the men were security threats is an RCMP document that refers to the men’s place of origin. The document states that “the Punjab province in Pakistan is noted for Sunni extremism”, thus implying that all residents of the Sunni province are potential terrorists.

In fact, the evidence produced by the task force is so flimsy that even RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli admitted that “there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that there’s any terrorist threat anywhere in the country related to this investigation.”

Clearly the arrest and detention of these men is yet another case of racial profiling by the the RCMP and CIC. These men’s civil liberties are being attacked not because of any crime they committed but because they are Pakistani and Muslim. To date, none of the men have been charged with a crime. So far, ten have been released on bonds, nine are still in detention and two have been deported. The men in detention are experiencing constant physical and emotional abuse by both guards and inmates.

Harmonizing Racism Across the Border

These recent attacks on immigrants and refugees in Canada are mirrored in the United States. Witness the case of Mohammad Abu Shaker, a Palestinian who has spent much of the last three years in various county jails. Israel will not allow his removal to Palestine, and yet the Bureau of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service) continues to hold him, insisting that they will find a way to remove him.

Meanwhile, Canada is rushing to close his one lifeline by implementing the Canada and US “Safe Third Country” agreement in April 2004. When this agreement comes into effect, Abu Shaker will be unable to commence a refugee claim under Canada’s more lenient (though still terrible) immigration system, and thereby join his wife in Canada. After April 2004, any refugee coming to Canada via the United States will be sent back to the US to pursue their claims there, which means mandatory detention and more likelihood of rejection. Under US laws, 95 percent of all asylum seekers are detained until their claim is heard.

Building a United Resistance

The treatment of Hassan Almeiri, the 21 Pakistani men, and Abu Shaker, are a few examples of the racist, unjust, inhumane immigration system in Canada. This system routinely criminalizes, marginalizes and terrorizes immigrants, refugees and people of colour. However, while the attacks continue, so does the fightback.

For example, non-status Algerians in Montréal, after fighting a hard battle with the support of local activists, won concessions from CIC that facilitated the granting of permanent residence to many Algerians who had lived in a non-status limbo for years. Unfortunately CIC has failed to live up to its promises, and so far 25 non-status Algerians have been rejected for landing even though their cases are identical to those already landed in Canada. Clearly further work will be needed to ensure they can remain in Canada.

“Project Threadbare”, a city-wide coalition, was formed in opposition to “Project Thread.” The coalition seeks to build a mass public awareness campaign, and is composed of members of the Pakistani and South Asian communities, cultural organizations, immigrant and refugee groups, anti-poverty organizations, political groups, faith groups, trade unionists, and students. The coalition has organized a number of successful community forums, rallies, pickets, as well as an ongoing media campaign to inform the public about this case.

One of the most interesting developments in refugee support work is the re-emergence of a sanctuary movement. In Canada, this campaign is led by groups like the Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition in Ottawa. The sanctuary movement has acted in defense of people fleeing dangerous and deadly situations by providing asylum at churches across Canada. Although the Canadian government has the power to remove these asylum seekers from the churches where they have found sanctuary, they have not yet done so. However, Denis Coderre, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, has stated, “My position is, as I have said since the beginning, that we respect the tradition of sanctuary. But I’m not going to negotiate with churches. That’s it. Period.”

The sanctuary movement will be key topic at No One is Illegal Toronto’s November conference titled “Community, Solidarity, Sanctuary”. Other issues to be discussed include colonialism, with a focus on how the theft of First Nation lands interconnects with the exclusion of people of colour from colonial nations such as Canada. We encourage people to assist with the organizing of this exciting conference and to get involved in future No One is Illegal events and actions, with a view to creating an effective fightback in defence of First Nation, immigrant and refugee rights.

NOTE: Some names have been changed to protect identities.

To get involved contact:

Action Committee for non-status Algerians (Montréal): 514-885-9510 or

Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada Toronto: 416-651-5800 or Ottawa: 613-722-1983 or

Project Threadbare (Toronto): 416-579-0481 or

No One is Illegal (Toronto):

Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (Toronto): 416-925-6939 or

STATUS Campaign (Toronto): 416-322-4950 x.239 or